Josh Denslow is the author of the collection Not Everyone Is Special (7.13 Books). His stories have appeared in Catapult, The Offing, Hobart, and Pithead Chapel. In addition to constructing elaborate Lego sets with his three boys, he plays the drums in the band Borrisokane.
Alex DiFrancesco is a multi-genre writer whose work has appeared in Tin House, The Washington Post, Brevity, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and more. They are the recipient of grants and fellowships from PEN America and Sundress Academy for the Arts. Their novel All City (Seven Stories Press) and their essay collection Psychopomps (CCM) were published in 2019.
I first met Josh Denslow in the sometimes exciting and sometimes frustrating landscape of Lit Twitter. Josh's opinions were something I valued, so I was not surprised to find that his work was equally valuable. His book, Not Everyone is Special is a sublime mixture of the ordinary and the extraordinary. In this interview, Josh and I talked about craft, letting your work surprise you, and being receptive to feedback.
AD: You start off with a Tom Waits quote, then immediately drop us into a set of characters and a location that would fit right into one of his songs, a year-round, road-side Santa’s wonderland complete with characters who are pretty broken in various ways. You also have a Waits-like sensitivity for the interior lives and hopes and dreams of these people. What do the underbelly of America, the sorts of characters who inhabit this landscape, these unsung people and places, mean to you?
JD: I have a real affinity for the people who didn't get a proper chance. Whether through their own failings or pressure from outside forces. The way life is structured for most people is that success feels unattainable. The world is constantly reiterating that you aren't supposed to feel like a winner. Ever. But I think the real problem is the metric we use for success, and how much of it is based on the observations and judgments of others. Life is full of small successes that go unobserved by everyone except the person living it.
And that's what really draws me to my characters. They might feel down on their luck, but in small ways, they are remaking themselves, and those are the successes I'm most interested in. Those moments where despite their inclinations, they make a choice that takes real guts and bravery. And that's true for Keith at the Christmas-themed amusement park. He's angry at the world and at himself, and most notably in this story, at the guy who plays Santa each day. But near the end of the story, after he discovers the situation with Santa is much worse than he'd initially expected, he makes a choice that transcends even what he'd thought of himself. In my opinion, that makes him a true hero.
AD: You have an amazing talent for drawing a character in a single line, like in “Punch,” when you introduce Nadine with, “She had long golden hair like the lady in the Golden Locks shampoo commercial, but was three hundred times prettier.” Is this an economy of words you usually use for the short story? Do you think you’d draw such a character more heavily in a novel?
JD: Thank you so much! Truly. Though I have always written fiction, I spent my college years and most of my twenties focused mostly on screenwriting. When I first started fiction in earnest again, it was pretty apparent that dialogue was my favorite part to write. I would jump over descriptions to return to more dialogue. I began to suspect that my descriptions were a weak point in my writing because they are almost non-existent in scripts. My workaround was to blend the way characters are described in one-sentence bursts in scripts with the more conversational descriptions that might be spoken by the characters in the story. And now I have this thing I do now, like in the example you pulled from "Punch" above, where you learn about Nadine, but also, you learn even more about the narrator making the observation.
Also, having now written three unpublished novels, I can say I still do the same thing no matter the length. I like the way it works because it gives you a rough sketch and then you can fill in the rest based on the characters' actions and dialogue later.
AD: In that same story, you don’t start building the alternate world until a few pages in. Did the story start out with this world of free punch vouchers in mind, or was that a turn that surprised you in the writing?
JD: I knew from the start I was writing a story about a world with punch vouchers. The surprise was everything else! I didn't know about the suicide or the crush on Nadine or the prized couch until I started writing. That's usually the way for me. I have a vague idea, like the punch vouchers, that is enough to get me going and then I discover character and plot along the way. In Punch, I was definitely discovering the rules of the world as I was going as well. That being said, I rewrote that story from scratch quite a few times before I got it right. It stands as the most rewritten story in the entire collection.
AD: I’m interested in your world-building techniques. Sometimes you achieve alternate worlds in a series of new namings of existing things. Sometimes you create new rules and entire bureaus to regulate them. This creates a feeling that we’re in an alternate reality, but one close to this one. Tell me a little more about your techniques and how you intentionally create your realities with them.
JD: I wish I could say I had it all worked out before I start writing, but I don't. Not even close. Each time I make a small tweak to our world, I have to then discover how big of a ripple effect it might have. If it just affects one person, I can usually keep the world almost exactly like ours. But if it affects everyone, as in the title story where everyone has a superpower, I have to follow those ripples further out. That's where regulations and oversight bureaus come into place, and then I get to have fun figuring out how my characters would get around the rules. I don't think about the machinations too much as I get started. Instead, I wait until the story begins to unfold as I write, and then I discover how the mundanity of this new world would look.
AD: In “Proximity,” your main character uses teleportation for mundane things, but there’s also the implication that these things can mean a great deal to other people’s lives. How does this use of fabulism with the everyday appeal to you as a writer?
JD: One of my main goals with the fabulism elements has been to try capture what it would be like if a person in our exact world developed a power. In Proximity, he uses his teleportation ability to try to sabotage his mother's relationship with a new guy. I think the problem is relatable, as well as the lesson he learns from his petty cruelty, but the means by which he achieves it lands us in a world just slightly different than ours. And I believe that if someone did discover they could teleport, they would have a hard time rising above the normal problems that plague them. They'd still be very, very human.
AD: I want to go back to the unexpected in your work. Sometimes it appears in a turn of phrase, and sometimes in larger, plot-oriented ways. How do you cultivate this in your work? What advice would you give someone trying to cultivate it in theirs?
JD: If it seems unexpected to the reader, it was probably unexpected to me too. I find if I set the story in motion and let the characters begin interacting and talking, they will guide me where I need to take them. Nothing gives me a bigger thrill than surprising myself! My advice would be to follow your characters wherever they take you, even if it becomes a completely different story than the one you set out to write. By remaining too rigid, you lose that spontaneity. Plus you end up forcing your characters in directions that feel unnatural.
AD: There’s a recurrence in your stories of directionless people -- people with odd jobs they don’t care about, people who live mostly in the day they are in without planning anything for their future. Why do you focus on these people, and by focusing on them, does it open up other elements of your stories for you? Would your stories change if they were focused on a different type of character? Do you think this sort of character opens up more subtly human moments in the stories?
JD: A lot of times, our jobs define us. When you meet someone for the first time, one of their first questions is usually what do you do? I am guilty of giving my characters jobs that other people might not want. So yes, I think directionless is certainly one way to look at it. But I actually see it as stuck in one direction. My characters don't take the big risks in life. They land on a path that makes them feel safe and never deviate. They are terrified of failure. The path they are on is the only thing they have. And because they won't be making any unnecessary turns, they lose the ability to look too far ahead. They confuse feeling safe with being safe. As I went through my stories over the last decade, I purposefully chose the stories with characters like this to include in the collection. I think if I changed the characters in these particular stories, and they became more adventurous and believed in themselves more, then they wouldn't be forced to make the decisions that they have to make. Small victories make up a life. Getting by is what we all do, just in different ways. By meeting up with my characters in these small but tough moments, we get a glimpse into the messy world of being human.
AD: I think, despite being about a murder, “Blake Bishop Believes in True Love” is one of the sweetest stories I’ve ever read. What made you decide to give Blake and Poppy a happy ending?
JD: I love that it's one of the sweetest things you've read! That makes my day. I have a real soft spot for Blake and since I really piled it on him during the course of the story, I thought the least I could do was give him a chance at happiness. I hate to be a downer though, but he's still in a pretty bad spot at the end. Literally. He and Poppy have chosen a terrible hiding place.
AD: This interview series is called "We Call Upon the Author to Explain" after one of my favorite songs. That song has the line "Prolix, prolix, nothing a pair of scissors can't fix" in it, and so the last question of every interview in this series is: if you had to cut one thing in this book, from a word up to a scene or a story, what would you take out?
JD: There's a moment in the first story, the one with the guy working at the Christmas-themed park, where he is describing himself. (In fact, the story was previously called "How I See Myself" before Third Coast had me change the title to "Too Late for a Lot of Things.") He pushes against the ways he's heard people of his height described (he's less than five feet tall) as he talks about himself, but more than one reader has been offended by that moment. I would take that out. The story works perfectly well without it. Which is always the case, isn't it?